Bernie Worrell

All the Woo in the World and the legacy of funk

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Thirty-five years ago, in 1978, Bernie Worrell released his first solo album, All the Woo in the World. At that point, he was internationally famous for his laser-like synthesizer licks in Parliament/Funkadelic, and in just five years’ time, he’d help Talking Heads transform from New York new-wave weirdoes to funky world-music megastars.

Listening back to Woo, it’s no wonder Talking Heads wanted Worrell’s guidance. The album, co-produced with George Clinton, is so funky you can smell it through the dust jacket. In seven tracks, Worrell shows how important he was to the P-Funk sound—in fact, the whole thing could easily be passed off as a lost Parliament/Funkadelic record, if not for Worrell’s name up top.

It’s impossible for me to listen to Woo, however, without remembering an incredible day I spent with Worrell in a recording studio a few years ago. He came to record an album in my hometown of Gainesville, Florida, and the local paper asked me to cover it. At the studio, I was ushered to the engineer’s console; lounging in a leather chair was the man with the magic hands, slowed by arthritis but never stopped. He wore a purple jacket that could have come from Prince’s closet, a “FootJoy” golf glove on each hand to ease his arthritis pain, expensive shades framing his face, and an ornate cap perched on his head like an exclamation mark.

Worrell offered me a chair and spoke graciously about being George Clinton’s songwriting soul mate. He recalled having a major role in orchestrating P-Funk’s shaggy jams. He spoke honestly about the massive amounts of drugs they all consumed, and how there was so much ass it was hard to get anything done; he liked Eastern European women—“All fit, no fat,” is how he put it. He talked about writing his first piano concerto at the tender age of eight and realizing he had perfect pitch. He remembered David Byrne as a painfully shy man, but sweet and eager to learn. And he took much of the credit for leading Talking Heads down the path of rhythm.

After our short chat, he went to work on a new song. As he helped his bass player feel where the accents should go, it struck me that a great player knows how to play the notes, but a genius knows why to play the notes. “Slow your mind down,” Worrell instructed the bass man. “It ain’t a North American thing. You got to feel the way they’d do it in Jamaica—sensual.”

The album he worked on that day was never released, if it was even finished, but Worrell has put out a few things since. And even though those things don’t capture him the way Woo did thirty-five years ago, perhaps it is important to respect that funk’s flame still burns bright in him.

“This is all I know how to do,” he said to me just before I left the studio. Then, after a beat, “To teach, to please, and to woo,” he cooed with a grin.

 

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